Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Republican Heresy--Who Built It?

As I watched the Republican Convention I couldn't help but notice the big sign emblazoned across the Arena: WE BUILT IT. As the Convention began speaker after speaker intoned these words: We build it! This has become the mantra of this year's convention. But I couldn't help but wonder: did the public sector build this gorgeous space? And so I did a little internet work. This arena is called the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It was formerly the Tampa Bay Ice Palace. This building was publicly financed. In 1996 $86 million dollars came from public funds. Recently there was added a $40 million renovation which was privately funded. The  Republican National Convention has added $20 million to get the place ready for their Convention. All this can be found in Alexander Abad-Santos' article of August 22.

For a long time I have bothered by this braggadocio idea:  "I did it." In my hometown of Bibb City outside Columbus, Georgia the important people drove Cadillacs and Buicks. They lived in beautiful houses back down the road from the tiny mill houses. These bosses were in charge of things and you had better be respectful or you would be out of a job and a place to live. These self-made men probably never thought about who helped make them who they were. A multitude of workers with lint in their hair and gnarled fingers and some missing fingers and arms. These were the folk that really built the mill. Without them there would be no important people tooling around keeping an eye on the place in their Buicks and Cadillacs. I am thankful that my folks had a place to work when they fled from the desolate farm in the depression. I am even grateful for that four-room house with an indoor toilet where we lived. I am grateful that the mill provided my first job where I made money for college. I am grateful for my heritage that taught me so much. But I know deep in my heart that there are no self-made people.We are all interconnected.

This country was not built by George Washington alone or any of the other founding fathers. It was fashioned  into the wonderful country it is today--by peasants and preachers and slaves and domestics and a whole cadre of people who could drive around later in Buicks and Cadillacs. So--like I learned from checking the history of the Convention Center in Tampa--we can't do it without each other.

And on Labor Day Weekend our circle is large indeed. I wish our brothers and sisters in Tampa could move over and make room for immigrants and gays and those women having a hard time and all those little people who will be kept from the polls this year because they can't drive a car or know how to fill out the complicated papers we now insist at the voting precincts. No, no, no we didn't build it by ourselves.We really do stand on the shoulders of giants Republicans, Democrats, Mormons, Baptists, atheists and everybody else. I wondered what I was going to write about this Labor Day. I found what I have to say on a large banner in Tampa.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

School's Beginning Brings Back Memories

The old ritual is beginning for another year. The cars, trucks and SUV’s and even a few moving vans are parked in single file outside the college dorm. Parent-types seem to be everywhere. They begin to haul TV’s, water skis and computers as big as televisions into the dorm. There are clothes and clogs and suitcases filled with all sorts of finery. Then come the pillows and bed linens and quilts and blankets. Someone drags in a rug and two people carry a huge chair. There are boxes of cassettes and small refrigerators, hairdryers and curling irons. There are tennis rackets and plastic bags of junk food. Most of the Mothers are pointing to what goes where while the Daddies either direct traffic or carry bundle after bundle inside. Many of the students just stand around greeting each other listening to their ipods or texting and texting. It’s that time of the year when the old ritual from home to school takes place once again.

Fifty-five years ago my own college journey began when a friend picked me up in front of my house. All my treasures were neatly fitted into a footlocker. It was heavy, but I hauled it out to his car. We shuffled boxes and suitcases around in the trunk and made room for my belongings. It was early and the Georgia morning was still cool. My Mother had left her job at the mill and come across the street to see me off. On our front porch my mother stood with her little apron, her printed dress and her hairnet to keep the cotton at bay. She didn’t leave the porch—she didn’t want me to see her cry. I threw her a kiss and got into my friend’s car.

At the time, I did not realize how hard that day was for her. Sending her oldest out of the nest into the great big world. When I took my own daughter to college and left her there waving goodbye, I felt what my mother must have felt back there standing on her porch. My mother had only finished the eighth grade. She was very proud since I was the first in our family to go to college. But she already knew what it took me years to discover. A door was closing and another opening. I was leaving home really never to be the boy with a bedroom right off the living room. She let me go that September morning. She simply stayed on the porch, waved goodbye and held back her tears.  Every week without fail in my school mailbox there would be a letter in her handwriting and a crumpled ten-dollar bill and a five. This would be my allowance for the week.

And so as school takes up and the SUV’s and cars line the campus—the memories come back. I remember a mother who stood on our porch the morning I left home.  I remember the enormous sacrifice that fifteen dollars meant that came faithfully. She was willing to send me away to experience what she had never had a chance to discover.

 The goods that move into those dorm rooms today are a far cry from that footlocker that held my belongings. But the feelings of these fathers and mothers surely have a universal ring. With heavy hearts, holding back the tears they, too, will let their son or daughter go. After the dorm room is straightened up, the curtains are hung and the mother has made the bed, she and her husband will get into their empty vehicle and head home. In the silence they will know what their Sally or Junior will not know for years and years. Life will be different. Rooms at home will be quiet. The old stairs will not shake as they did when the kids ran up and down the steps. And every night just before sleep comes that Mother and Father will see a face and whisper a prayer.

(This article appeared in the Sunday Greenville News (SC) August 19, 2012)

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Long Goodbye

I want to recommend a  blog piece to you--in fact the whole blog. Susan Hull is the daughter of Dr. and Willodean Hull of  Birmingham. I have followed her journey as her Father was diagnosed with ALS and began  a slow terrible slide downhill. Not too long ago her Mother developed serious dementia. She has written movingly and brilliantly about the painful journey with her Father and Mother.

In her latest blog piece she tells how she received a frantic phone call from her father that she could not understand. Someone staying with them gave Susan the sad news: her Mother had only about a week to live. So she writes about this news and her feelings.

 Her words are worth pondering and as I read them I thought about Langston Hughes' poem:

"At the feet o' Jesus,
Sorrow like the sea.
Lordy, let yo' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.

At the feet o' Jesus
At yo' feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo' hand."
--The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, p. 78

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost--Be Careful

Since school is starting again and first graders and college freshman and teachers are all getting ready—I remember reading about this little boy who came to school one morning with a paper sack filled with broken pieces of pottery. He told his teacher his mother and daddy had a fight the night before and the daddy threw a vase against the wall and it shattered. And the next morning their little boy gathered up the broken fragments, put the pieces in a sack and told his teacher he had to put them back together.

Aren’t we all like that in a way? We come here with these little sacks filled with the broken things of our lives. And we keep hoping that maybe, just maybe we might find a way to put the pieces back together again.  

And this is why the text in Ephesians is so important today. There may just be lurking in these words of Paul a word that God sends just to you and me. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus. That little house church was surrounded by a pagan culture. And there were an awful many things in their lives that they couldn’t seem to fix. Apostasy—falling away—was a serous problem for many. Something seemed to chip away at their very souls day after day. Could all those bits and pieces of their lives somehow find some solidity? That was the question underneath the conflict and heartbreak of Ephesus. What are we to do? What in the world can we do? 

So I think these words to the little church at Ephesus might just help us on our journeys, too. His words are found toward the end of his letter in Ephesians 5. 15-20. Their old friend gave them a warning:  Be careful, he said.  One version says: Take heed. Another version translates these words: Look therefore carefully. Another translator says: Take great care. But what I think Paul was trying to say was—I want you to listen. Once I worked with an old Preacher. Every Sunday as he preached he kept saying: “Are you listening? Are you listening?” That’s what Paul was saying: Be careful. This is important.

Be Wise 

And the first thing their former Pastor wrote was: Be careful how you live not as unwise people but as wise. Hee  reached back to his Jewish heri­tage and reclaimed an old, old word: wisdom. Now Ephesus knew about wisdom. Athens and Alexandria were the centers of wisdom in their day. They knew that wisdom meant: knowl­edge, head stuff, facts, or degrees. Intelligentsia. And what Paul reminded Ephesus was there is wisdom and there is wisdom.

Wisdom and wisdom? If he were talking to us I think he would not be talking about scanning the inter­net. He would not be talking about that multitude of how-to books or dragging at the Kindle or  I-pad to ferret out more information. Sometimes I think this information highway will bury us all.  Some of the people in Alexandria and Athens with the most frazzled lives were the most educated. There is wisdom and there is wisdom. We make the mistake of trying to link education with wisdom and these two words are not synonymous. Chad Walsh said once that he never really believed in the fall of man [sic] until he went to his first college faculty meeting. He should have tried some church business meetings I have endured. For you see we can be right and still be wrong. Paul shatters that myth of wisdom being merely head stuff.

 But if wisdom is not intel­lectual achievement what in the world is it? The wise people Paul talks about have the right attitude toward life. Maybe not attitude as much as spirit.  I've met old farmers out there in the field with a tractor that had as much real wisdom as anybody I know. You've met people like that.

Be careful, he says, how you look at the world. This is the real wisdom--to look out at the world as a child of God. To see your broth­ers and sisters everywhere. To know we are here to make a contribution--to give something back. It's not to let the world write our agenda. We seek a better way for ourselves and those we love. Be careful how you live understanding the real meaning of wisdom.

Make the Most of Your Time                     

The Congregational Leader continued to read Paul’s letter: Be careful that you make the most of the time. The old KJV used to say: Redeem the time. The more accurate translation may be: "Snap up all the available opportunities.” The Message by Eugene Peterson translates these words: “ So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get.” My wife and I spent many parts of our summers in New Jersey. And one of things we loved to do was to go this gigantic flea market outside Lambertville, New Jersey. And people were running around looking for bargains. And some of the folk were jerking and snatching some hideous things that I thought should have been consigned to the dump. Lamps made out of old fireplugs. Velvet pictures of Elvis as a baby with his mother. Huge backlighted pictures of Jesus. Boxes of buttons. 

Aren’t we much like that? Our lives are made up of a vast array of tables and choices. And I don’t know about you but I have picked up, along the way some things that I had no business carting home. Hurtful things. Selfish things. Embarrassing things. Broken things. I don't know why it is that so many us have to reach middle age before we realize how much we have collected along the way that had no meaning at all.

John Piper tell the story of this couple who had worked hard all their lives, raised their children and decided to take an early retirement. They moved to Punta Gorda, Florida in a gated community and spent their time cruising on their 30-foot trawler, playing softball one night a week, and collecting shells. They had the most beautiful collection of shells you have ever seen. Piper said that this is the American dream. And he goes on to say that this dream really is a tragedy. To come to the end of one’s life—with all the days and months and years behind them and stand before the Creator and say: “Look, look Lord see my shells.” And Piper reminds us that this just is not enough to show for a life. It is not enough. We are to use our time better than this.


Paul’s letter continued: Be careful how you live--do not be foolish--but understand what is the will of God.  Paul pleaded for the gift of discernment. Understanding. I think Paul was trying to say that we can begin to understand what God wants us to do with all those broken things in our sacks. What is God’s will for us right where we are?  Paul said it matters what we think about others, the world and ourselves. We believe we can under­stand the will of God and we be­lieve there is something healthy about that. We believe that Jesus was right when he said if we ask we receive, if we seek we shall find and if we keep on knocking on the door it will open. And he wasn’t talking about Cadillac’s or finding a parking place close to the store—he was talking about discern­ment.

            Patrick Overton understood this in his poem from The Learning Tree.  
            "When we walk to the edge of all
                        the light we have
             and take that step into the darkness
                        of the unknown,
             we must believe that one of two things
                        will happen--
             There will be something solid for us
                        to stand on
             Or, we will be taught how to fly."

Discernment is finding the way in a jungle of the world. We Christians are hopers. We really do believe that we can take whatever we hold in our sacks and find a way to make them bearable and meaningful.

Filled with the Spirit 

But: Paul was not through: Be careful, he said, not to be drunk with wine--but filled with the spirit. There was the cult of Dionysus that believed that wine-induced frenzies led to religious insight. That cult is still with us. We are not to use alcohol or any­thing else a substitute for coping. I have buried too many 48 year olds that drank themselves to death. They did not intend to do that. They were just trying to make it through the world. Paul says that alcohol is a very poor substitute for the spirit of God. But lest we get too pious, we know that life is filled with a whole table full of addictions. We all have them. Stuff--materialism; money--or the love of it; status--or the desire for it; or success or work or sex or just about anything. And some of these things can account for the broken pieces in our sacks.

So Paul used the phrase: filled with the spirit as opposed to so many other things. Remember what the word spirit means? God brings energy, breath, and life itself. So we are to find some healthy ways to let the spirit get a foothold into our lives. This spirit is comforter, healer, forgiver, energizer, teach­er, helper and friend. Paul reminded those in Ephesus that they could not find that spirit anywhere else.

Give Thanks

Paul then ended his sermon by saying:  Be careful how you live by giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. His word, thanksgiving reminds me of a little book called 365 Thank Yous. It was written by John Kralik about December 22, 2007 which was the darkest day in his life. His law firm was losing money and its lease. He was going through a difficult divorce and was completely broke. He found himself living in a tiny apartment where he slept on the flood u under an ancient air conditioner. He said his sons had nothing to do with him. It looked like everything in his sack was broken.

John Kralik was 52 years old and overweight and was exhausted. He owed $170,000 because clients had not paid what they owed. The lawyer said he did not know how he would tell the people that worked in his office that there would be no Christmas bonuses. He went up into the mountains just trying to think. He got lost and did not know if he could find his out of the wilderness. And he wrote that the strangest thing happened. A voice came to him that said: “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have you will not receive the things you want.” He thought he was losing his mind.

But he remembered his grandfather had told him once that being thankful was one of the important things in life. And his grandfather said, “I will give you a silver dollar and if you write me a thank you note I will give you another silver dollar.” And so Kralik said maybe he’d write a couple of people he was grateful for. But he began to think of his life and he decided he was more blessed than he realized. Maybe, he said, I will try to write a thank you note to someone everyday of the year.

As he sipped coffee he remembered that his son had given him a one-cup coffee maker the used every day. And so his first note was a thank-you to his long-estranged son. This began his journey of gratitude. Weeks later it dawned on him that the way he was looking at his life and it was off track. He wrote to friends, to college professors who had opened windows in his life. He wrote to his ex-wife even though their relationship was poor. As he wrote he wrote he remembered the good times. There were notes to doctors and people in stores that had been kind to him. He looked back and said in 15 months he had written 365 thank you notes.

Slowly he wrote that life began to change.  Not fast. But ever so slow. And out of that experience he wrote this book about his long and winding journey with gratitude. Paul was right: gratitude is at the heart of a good life.

But that Sunday the congregation at Ephesus received Paul’s letter, their leader unrolled the papyrus scroll, carefully so he would not break the parchment. He began to read: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit…giving thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  So their service ended, and secretly they began to slip out one by one for Rome would not approve. But they went their separate ways a little more hopeful that when anger and envy and lust and gluttony and greed knocked on their doors. They would not lose heart. But they would be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. They would put on the whole armor of God. They would bow their heads and give thanks that in the economy of God’s love it would be enough.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Guns and More Guns

Ever since I saw this sign in my Health Club I’ve been thinking about guns.
Tobacco Free Facility
No Concealed Weapons
 I asked the man at the desk that day how many people brought weapons into the Sports Club. He looked at me as if I were crazy.  I started to ask the Usher at the door of my church how many weapons he had seen that morning—but I didn’t want another strange stare. We’re told that we can take guns to political rallies, to malls and just about every other place.

But when I read about the killing of 12 people in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado I wondered just how far we are going to go with this gun love. When James Holmes went on that murderous spree in Colorado not only did he leave 12 dead but also 70 others wounded. We have learned that he had collected an arsenal that included a semiautomatic assault rifle and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Do you feel like that we are little crazy when we talk about guns?

 I know that the N.R.A. is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. I know they have muzzled just about every politician in Washington. and I also know that TV ads with candidates standing there with their guns have cropped up in many places.

Of course we have the right to bear arms. A law written just after the British were hammering away at our doors. I don’t want hunters or people in rural areas denied of their guns. David Brooks has said that there is a dividing line on this issue between rural and urban areas. Leaders in many urban areas want more gun control—while those leaders in the country wonder what the concern is all about.

The Assault weapons ban has expired and the Brady Law which required background checks on those seeking to purchase handguns is no more. Who needs a semiautomatic weapon anyway? Who needs a gun clip that can fire 50 to 100 rounds at a time? Aren’t we concerned that anybody can order guns and ammunition over the Internet? Mr. Holmes, the Colorado shooter had spent some $15,000 on guns and ammunition. The killing is not going to stop. But it looks like the N.R.A. would realize they are hurting their own cause when we have background checks for just about everything excvept guns. Kids are  carded to make sure they are 21 before theycan drink. We have regulations on washing machines and dryers and hamburger meat and our automobiles. I have to have insurance before I buy a car or get a mortgage on my house. Why I can't smoke anywhere I want to anymore. Is this America or what?

If we want to know citizens’ opinions of gun control ask the loved ones of those twelve people who were shot in that darkened theatre the other night. We are pretty sure what they would say.  I’m not a hunter. I don’t even own a gun. I have quite a few friends that do—but I sure am glad as Pastor that guns were not allowed in our church business meetings. There were nights when I thought sure war was going to break out.
I have no answers to this problem. I only know we are on the wrong track when an organization like the N.R.A. can control our gun use our lack of background checks and the muzzling of almost every politician around. Seems like the tail is once more wagging the dog.

(You might be interested in a couple of articles that deal with this problem. David Brooks and Gail Collins have had a discussion in a NY Times blog. Time Magazine recently devoted their lead article on: "How the Guns Won." And E.J. Dionne's splendid article, "Rationalizing gutlessness on guns," is thought provoking. )

Friday, August 3, 2012

We Remember Our Fallen

As we battle the heat, try to keep cool and nurse our flowers during this weather—we need to still remember the war that still rages and those that come home in boxes.In South Carolina in just the last few weeks three of our young men came back home in flag-draped coffins.

If you have followed my blog you know that for a while I was listing the names of those killed in the war and where they were from and how they died. But that number grew so long I had to finally quit listing the names. But we still need to remember all those who fight for us and those who won’t be coming home alive. I have studied the CNN list of War Casualties this week. Most of those who have died have been in their twenties. Some are older but the majority are very young. Every part of America has been touched. Palm Beach, Florida...Holland, Michigan...La Verne, California...Lebanon Ohio...Austin, Texas...Lyman, South Carolina...Birmingham, Alabama to name a few cities and towns. 43 were killed in the month of July. Only one was killed in Iraq while the others died in Afghanistan. 

They were soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and some civil-employees. To date there have been 7,800 War casualties from twenty countries. Iraq has had 4,802 casualties. In Afghanistan we have lost 3,095 of our service people.

But that is not the whole picture. Since this war started there have been 32,227 US troops wounded. 13,095 have been wounded in Afghanistan and 19,132 have been wounded in Iraq. Time Magazine has reported that every day one US soldier commits suicide. There has been 18% increase in suicides among US active troops in 2012, compared with 201. Among all veterans a suicide occurs every 80 minutes round the clock. Read the story for yourself. But these figures don’t tell the whole story. Wives and children who have lost someone. Parents and grandparents, siblings and friends who have all been touched. Not to speak of the losses from our communities.

The Greenville News carried this sad story this Friday morning.

“Twenty-six year Navy veteran and Army veteran George Ross marched solemnly across the hot tarmac at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport to a flag-draped casket that had just been lowered from a chartered jet. 

There, he knelt for a moment, embracing the coffin that held his son’s body, as a crowd of more than 100 watched in silence from behind a chain link fence. 

Pfc. Adam Ross, 19 who had followed in the footsteps of his father and older brother to serve in the U.S. Army, was home at last. 

Jut three weeks into his tour of duty in Afghanistan, he paid for his decision to serve his country with his life, becoming a casualty of a war that stgarted when he was eight years old. 

Ross was the third member of the military with Upstate ties to return home to a hero’s posthumous welcome in little over a month.” (written by Ron Barnette)

"Never again...young women and men should dream
of breezes in trees, soft rain, sunshine. Never again."
--Vince Gotera, Veteran,  U.S. Army